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The Road to the, um, Super Bowl?

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Remember when you could count on lazy Sunday afternoons watching the Dallas Cowboys from Labor Day until, oh, New Year's? Gone. With the release of the NFL schedule today, the Cowboys will play a franchise-record seven games on national TV, but only nine of their 16 games take place on Sunday afternoons.

The Cowboys open at home against the New York Giants September 9 (one Sunday down) and close December 30 at Washington. The toughest stretch for first-year coach Wade Phillips' team would appear to be a November stretch during which Dallas plays NFC East opponents Philadelphia, New York and Washington on consecutive weeks. Despite all the national exposure on Sunday nights and even Thursdays, Dallas plays just once on Monday Night Football: October 8 at Buffalo. The season unofficially begins with a pre-season game, with Dallas hosting the defending champion Indianapolis Colts on August and, with a lotta luck, it ends February 3 at Super Bowl XLII in Arizona. At first glance, gimme 10-6.

When you're done predicting yet another 16-0 season, take heart that your Cowboys will this summer enjoy the shortest, perhaps easiest training camp in the history of the NFL. Fifteen days, that's it. And it'll all be inside the air-conditioned Alamodome. So get ready for critics to crow early and often about how Phillips is a push-over compared to Bill Parcells and even Jimmy Johnson, who, legend has it, practiced his team twice a day in 100-degree heat in Austin for 37 days in 1992. Oh, wait, that's not legend. Take it from a beat writer who was there: That actually happened. Because of the San Antonio Boat Show, these Cowboys have to vacate the premises early, shoving a chunk of the pre-season to Valley Ranch.

In other news, the Cowboys don't have a decent draft pick, but they do have a killer future home.

So, here's the complete schedule:

September 9 vs. N.Y. Giants, 7:15 p.m. A showdown right off the bat.

September 16 at Miami, 3 p.m. 2-0's a reality. But, yeah, so is 0-2.

September 23 at Chicago, 7:15 p.m. Better Soldier Field now than in December.

September 30 vs. St. Louis, noon At this point it's a W, right?

October 8 at Buffalo, 7:15 p.m. Will Bills fans even remember who Wade Phillips is?

October 14 vs. New England, 3:15 p.m. Should be perfect weather for Belichick's gray hoodie.

October 21 vs. Minnesota, noon Backup QB Brad Johnson against his former mates.

October 28, Bye Better than an L, right?

November 4 at Philadelphia, 7:15 p.m. Betcha a nickel T.O. tops last year's four-catch debacle.

November 11 at NY Giants, 3:15 p.m. Middle of the season's most important stretch.

November 18 vs. Washington, noon Bill Parcells would never say it, but I will: Big Game.

November 22 vs. N.Y. Jets, 3:15 p.m. Suitable for Thanksgiving feasting.

November 29 vs. Green Bay, 7:15 p.m. Consecutive Thursday games. WTF?

December 9 at Detroit, noon Remember the 39 points the Lions hung on Parcells last December?

December 16 vs. Philadelphia, 3:15 p.m. Could be for the NFC East title. Or not.

December 22 at Carolina, 7:15 p.m. Primetime return to site of Tony Romo's first NFL win.

December 30 at Washington, noon If anything's on the line, the environment will be delicious. --Richie Whitt

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